The West That Was, Part 3, by Paul Rosenberg

America in the 1800s was a completely different country. From Paul Rosenberg at

If we wish to grasp American life in the 19th century, it’s probably best to start by understanding that when America was young, it had no myth. Once we really understand that, the rest falls into place fairly easily. Here’s how Alexis de Tocqueville (in National Character of Americans) described it in the 1830s:

Born often under another sky, placed in the middle of an always moving scene, himself driven by the irresistible torrent which draws all about him, the American has no time to tie himself to anything, he grows accustomed only to change, and ends by regarding it as the natural state of man. He feels the need of it, more he loves it; for the instability; instead of meaning disaster to him, seems to give birth only to miracles all about him.

We all know that national leaders promote myths about their glorious nation: one or more “uniquenesses” that give the people of their nation a fast, easy and noble identity. And assuredly American myths have been promoted all through our lifetimes. But in its early years, America had no such myth. America was a rebellious upstart; a collection of violent and uncivilized farmers who made so much trouble for the British that they eventually pulled out. Some Americans saw themselves as heroic, but educated and powerful people worldwide considered them semi-barbaric.

And so, Americans couldn’t claim glorious ancestors or much anything else to gain fast and cheap self-esteem; they’d have to earn it… they’d have to show the rest of the world that self-governing peasants could out-produce nations guided by enlightened aristocrats. And so the minds of Americans were focused on actual production, education and progress instead of national myths.

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